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NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) — For most, the holiday season is a cheerful time. But for military families who have lost someone to war, it can be just the opposite.

Snowball Express, an annual event in North Texas, aims to fix that. It’s a hero’s welcome for the ones heroes have left behind.

“We’re with other families that understand our loss, that understand exactly what we’re going through,” Leslie Ponder, whose husband was killed in Afghanistan, said.

Every December hundreds of children fly to DFW from around the country on the Snowball Express for a few days of holiday fun. All are the sons, daughters and spouses of military heroes who lost their lives.

(Photo: Peter Watson - CBS11)

(Photo: Peter Watson – CBS11)

Leslie Ponder has been bringing her two daughters to the event for the past decade.

“I would be a very different person without Snowball, I can honestly say that,” Samantha Ponder said.

Samantha Ponder was 7 years old when her father, Army Master Sgt. James Ponder, was shot down.

“If you’ve ever heard of the movie ‘Lone Survivor,’ that was the mission he was on,” Samantha Ponder said.

The blockbuster told the story of Operation Red Wings. James Ponder was on the rescue helicopter shot from the sky, killing everyone on board.

This December, 91 new families leaned on people like Leslie Ponder and her daughters. The Snowball Express group grows every year.

“The little girl looks at [my daughter] and goes, ‘My daddy died.’ And Samantha said, ‘My daddy died too,'” Leslie Ponder said. “I saw a mom crying. I said, ‘Is that your daughter?’ She goes, ‘Yeah. … This is the first time she has publicly acknowledged her dad’s death.'”

It’s a true gift of healing that can’t come from Santa, but instead from a few friends, a few games and understanding.

“Being able to come together with these kids is a blessing,” Samantha Ponder said, “something I’ve very thankful for.”

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